Doctor, writer, independence leader, “Father of his country”
Ramón Emeterio Betances Alacán was the son of Felipe Betances, a Dominican immigrant tied to the world of the sugar trade and business, and María del Carmen Alacán, a native of Cabo Rojo. He was born April 8, 1827. During his childhood in Mayagüez, he was educated by private tutors.
In 1837 he traveled to Toulouse, France, where he completed his preparatory education at the Collège Royal, today Lycée Pierre-de-Fermat. In 1848, he enrolled in the School of Medicine at the University of Paris. He took specialized courses at the School of Medicine of Montpellier in 1852 and he finished his degree in Medicine and Surgery in Paris in 1855. In 1856, he returned to Puerto Rico, earned the right to practice as a doctor and surgeon and settled in Mayagüez, where he worked as a surgeon and began his broad work in philanthropy and politics.
That same year, Puerto Rico suffered a cholera epidemic that reached Mayagüez and affected a large part of the population. Betances, along with four other doctors, dedicated himself to attending to some 24,000 residents. Along with Dr. José Francisco Basora, he alerted and pressured the municipal government to take preventive actions such as burning slave quarters, because of their unhygienic and contaminated conditions. He also contributed to the creation of a temporary camp for slaves and a supplementary cemetery. Betances established and managed a temporary hospital that later became the San Antonio Hospital, the permanent municipal hospital in Mayagüez.
In intellectual and literary fields, his work included poetry, short stories, journalism and translation. Neo-classical elements such as satire, romanticism and realism-naturalism converge in his work.
In scientific fields, he was a doctor and a surgeon, specializing in obstetrics, ophthalmology, urology and epidemiology in both tropical and temperate climates. He was interested in pharmacology, medical entrepreneurship and involved in a number of businesses related to health. He was considered one of the founders of academic medicine in Puerto Rico. His commitment to health was matched by his commitment to education. In Mayagüez, he promoted the establishment of a school in 1865, along with lawyer Segundo Ruiz Belvis. In Paris, he promoted the creation of a hospital and a school to meet the needs of Latin American immigrants in 1889.
As a political leader, he was influenced by republicanism and the democratic ideals of the First French Republic. He defended the separation and independence of Puerto Rico and a union of the Antilles in a confederation capable of preventing foreign intervention in their sovereignty. Along with Ruiz Belvis, he was one of the organizers of the Secret Society of Abolitionists (1856-1857). He led the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico in Santo Domingo (1867). He wrote “The Ten Commandments of Free Men,” which was used as a guide for the armed insurrection of the Grito de Lares (September 23, 1868). While the uprising failed, he remained tied to clandestine movements along with Dominicans and Cubans. He favored the party that took up arms in the Little War (1879) in Cuba after the Zanjón Treaty and was at the side of those in the Cuban uprising in 1895 under the leadership of José Martí Pérez. He warned of the danger of intervention in Puerto Rico by the United States in the Spanish-American War. On June 7, 1898, Betances wrote to Eugenio María de Hostos from Paris and said, “The United States should be generous. They cannot ask us to submit to a conquest, when almost all our trade and industries have to be with them. For us, independence is salvation and for the Americans a more considerable source of riches.”
He died in France on September 16, 1898. His remains were brought to Puerto Rico in 1920 and are buried in the public square of Cabo Rojo, his hometown.
Cancel Sepúlveda, Mario R. “Puerto Rico: su transformación en el tiempo”. Blog del autor. https://historiapr.wordpress.com/tag/ramon-emeterio-betances/, retrieved 11/16/2020.
April 8, 1827
Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico
September 16, 1898
Author: Dr. Mario Cancel Sepúlveda
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, November 11, 2020